(July 17, 2014) — After nearly three decades of research with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, soil scientist Vincent Haby retired in 2009 and bought a 220-acre ranch about 20 miles from the agricultural experiment station in Overton where, among other projects, he conducted groundbreaking research on growing alfalfa in East Texas.
Now Haby is practicing what he preaches. He’s growing alfalfa where it was once widely believed it would never grow, and he’s already had three cuttings, producing close to 500 50-pound bales with each of his last two harvests. Not bad for a forage that people long believed couldn’t be grown in the region.
Haby’s research into growing East Texas alfalfa started in the early 1980s when he was invited to speak as a researcher to Extension agents about some possible alternative crops in the region. He had worked with alfalfa in Montana and mentioned that as a possibility in his presentation to the Extension agents.
Dr. Richard C. Potts, whom Haby knew from his undergraduate days, came up to him after the talk and said he had often wondered why they couldn’t grow alfalfa in East Texas.
“I admired that old man, so I jumped into it,” Haby said. “We thought the East Texas bottoms would be a good place because it had good, rich soils, but they held too much water. Alfalfa can’t tolerate wet feet.”
From there, Haby moved his experiments to sandy loam with reddish to yellow clay; gray clay is too wet, he warns. He and his team grew alfalfa in Bermudagrass fields at four different locations with seven-, 14-, 21- and 28-inch spacings, respectively.
“The alfalfa outdid the Bermuda grass — shaded it out — even at the 28-inch spacings,” Haby said.
The next step, partly financed by a grant from USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE), involved research studies on pH, phosphorous rates and eight different soil types. He did grazing studies on five different farms, the largest being eight acres. Alfalfa flourished at four of the sites; the fifth was too wet.
“From that, we knew we were onto something,” Haby said. “We went to the NRCS soil manuals where we could look at a description of the soils to see if it was well-drained and its other characteristics.”
From that research, Haby was able to report that about a third of the soils in East Texas were suitable for growing alfalfa. He found that alfalfa needs a native soil pH above 7.0, or acid soils limed four-to-six inches deep. The land needs to be level to gently sloping, well aerated and drained. The soil has to be responsive to applied nutrients like phosphorous and boron. Four pounds of actual boron per acre on soil limed to a pH of 7.0 produced more than two tons of alfalfa dry matter.
Haby notes that one of the advantages of growing alfalfa is that it doesn’t need any added nitrogen. Rhizobium bacteria inoculated on the roots of alfalfa converts nitrogen in the air to the kind of nitrogen that is needed for plant growth, he said.
“The rhizobium bacteria infects roots to two inches deep and forms nodules that take (nitrogen) directly into the plant,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about alfalfa.”
Another great thing for the successful grower is that it brings a premium price on the market, where it is especially popular with horse owners. Bales weighing 75-80 pounds are going for about $12 a bale in East Texas, Haby said. He’s selling his 50-pound bales for $8.
Haby said the number one question he gets from horse owners concerns blister beetles, which harbor a toxin called cantharidin. Horses are highly susceptible to the toxin, but not through being bit. The blister beetles like to feed on alfalfa flowers and crops. The harvested hay is contaminated by the mutilated beetles.
So how many blister beetles does it take to kill a horse? There is no definite answer, but estimates from various universities generally put the number at between 25 to 300, depending on concentration of cantharidin — different species carry different levels of the toxin — and the size and overall health of the horse.
Blister beetles have never been an issue for Haby, either in his research or on his recent cuttings.
“In all the years I’ve spent developing the techniques, I’ve never seen a single blister beetle in this region,” he said. “That’s 24 experiments where they have never showed up.”
He said blister beetles are common in alfalfa elsewhere, including parts of Texas, but he has never encountered one in his studies.